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The Queen, her prime ministers and their weekly meetings

From Winston Churchill to Liz Truss, Queen Elizabeth II’s reign saw 15 prime ministers. In their weekly private audiences, the Queen served as a politically neutral sounding board, offering advice – and warnings – when needed.

Elizabeth II, queen, queen and her prime ministers, Elizabeth II and her prime ministers, elizabeth, prime minister, churchill, home, wilson, heath, major, blair, johnson, may, thatcher, cameron, audienceFrom some born in the 1800s to others born during her reign, the Queen has seen 15 prime ministers occupy Downing Street (Source: AP)

Every week for the last 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II held a private audience with her prime ministers. The meeting was not an obligation but rather a courtesy extended by both parties. The prime minister used the time to bring the Queen up to speed on matters of governance, and the Queen in turn shared her advice, bolstered by experience and a keen knowledge of British history.

These meetings are believed to have lasted around 30 minutes and were conducted in the Private Audience Room, located on the first floor of Buckingham Palace. They were also private and are not recorded, leading to much speculation over what transpired during them.

Since ascending to the throne in 1952, the Queen reigned through the terms of 15 separate prime ministers with Liz Truss being the last, and Winston Churchill the first.

What was discussed

Officially, the Queen’s meetings with prime ministers were held in order to discuss government matters. While the Queen was expected to remain politically neutral during these exchanges, she was able to “advise and warn” prime ministers whenever necessary. That means that the Queen could make some comments on matters of governance but did not have a final say over decisions made.

Importantly, the Queen’s audiences were characterised by confidentiality. Speaking about his weekly meetings, former Prime Minister Edward Heath said, “It was always a relief to be able to discuss everything with someone, knowing full well that there was not the slightest danger of any information leaking. I could confide in Her Majesty absolutely.”

Queen Elizabeth and her last Prime Minister, Liz Truss (AP)

The Queen was also well versed in British history, and later into her reign, politics as well. She could provide her prime minister with impartial counsel, serving either as a counterbalance of opinions or a sounding board. In her own words, her prime ministers “unburden themselves or they tell me what’s going on or if they’ve got problems and sometimes one can help in that way too. They know one can be impartial…I think it’s rather nice to feel that one’s a sort of sponge and everybody can come and tell me things…And occasionally you can be able to put one’s point of view which, perhaps they hadn’t seen it from that angle.”

The Queen was also constantly evolving in her knowledge and opinions. After witnessing the disastrous repercussions of the Suez crisis under former Prime Minister Antony Eden, she was able to draw upon those experiences during the Falklands war.

Little is known about what is discussed during these audiences but according to information available, it seems as though the conversations were often two-sided. Churchill is known to have discussed matters related to the Queen’s coronation, Harold Wilson, the challenges of governing with a slim majority and Eden, the scandal surrounding Princess Margaret’s potential engagement to Peter Townsend.

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 The Queen and her prime ministers

The Queen’s first prime minister was the elderly statesman Churchill. Despite his immense popularity for steering Britain through the Second World War, Churchill was not nearly as successful at governing during peacetime. It is even believed that he convinced the Queen to postpone her coronation for two years so that he could retain the leadership of the Conservative party that had tasked him with training the new Queen.

Churchill was a staunch monarchist who had also been close with the Queen’s late father. He was both keenly respectful of her title and aware of his responsibility in teaching her the ways of the court. For his part, Churchill seemed happy with how she took to the role. He once remarked, “All the film people in the world, if they had scoured the globe, could not have found anyone so suited for the part.”

After Churchill, came Eden. Once a rising star, Eden struggled with following in the footsteps of his famous and personable predecessor. Eden’s tenure was further soured by the events of the Suez crisis. Reportedly, Eden was so confident in the Queen’s value that he shared with her top secret documents related to the invasion of Egypt. While we do not know what the Queen thought of the matter, court aides suggest that she advised Eden against reclaiming the canal.

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Anthony Eden (Wikimedia Commons)

Not much is known about the relationship between the Queen and her next Prime Minister Harold Macmillan but according to a government blog post, the two were “on the same wavelength” and the Queen slowly came to rely on his counsel. The former prime minister later commented that the Queen was the one person he could talk to.

Next up was Alec Douglas-Home, a fellow Scottish landowner and a childhood friend of the Queen mother. Home only held the post for under a year but allegedly, he and the Queen were so close that they stayed in touch after he left office and he even helped the monarch name royal horses over the years.

Home’s successor could not have been any more different. While Home was a staunch aristocrat, the man who followed him, Wilson, was said to have told the Queen that he did not own sufficiently formal clothing to attend state functions. Her first Labour prime minister was only a decade apart from her in age, and although people did not expect them to have much in common, they famously got along very well. Wilson was a feminist who valued the Queen’s counsel and, according to her biographer Ben Pimlott, “behaved towards her – unexpected – as an equal, and talked to her as if she were a member of his cabinet.”

After Wilson came Heath, a man perhaps best remembered for taking Britain into Europe. Of his relationship with the Queen, a former aide told Pimlott, “she was never comfortable with him” and although the two maintained formal relations, the closeness seen with Wilson was gone. The main point of contention between the two was European integration. While Heath wanted Britain to establish closer ties with Europe, the Queen preferred to extend her influence to the Commonwealth.

James Callaghan, who succeeded Heath, managed to restore relations. Their conversations, he said, “could roam anywhere over a wide range of social as well political and international topics.” The second Labour leader under her reign once said that talking to the Queen was akin to talking to a psychiatrist. Famously, he also told the Queen that she offered “friendliness but not friendship.”

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Margaret Thatcher (Wikimedia Commons)

After Callaghan came Margaret Thatcher, the longest-serving prime minister under the Queen. Reports of their relationship paint a very unappealing picture. Despite only being six months apart in age, Thatcher and the Queen were believed to have clashed on a number of issues, most significantly, Thatcher’s handling of apartheid in South Africa. While the so-called Iron Lady was not in favour of the practice, she was also against imposing economic sanctions on segregated South Africa. Documents declassified in 2017 show the Queen was so incensed over Thatcher’s position, she considered cancelling one of their weekly meetings.

In her biography, Thatcher dismissed claims of frostiness, saying that the media invented them to create tension between the two most powerful women in Britain.

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John Major, who succeeded Thatcher, was the first prime minister who was younger than the Queen. Major supported the Queen in 1992, a year she dubbed her annus horribilis, and helped her navigate Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s divorce. In an interview with Sky News, Major said that the Queen was someone with whom premiers could talk freely.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader who governed for 10 years after Major, was not known to have had a particularly warm relationship with the Queen. Unlike the rest of her prime ministers, Blair was a self-described modernist who saw the crown as a rigid institution representing continuity over progress. In his book, A Journey, Blair describes his first audience with the Queen, remarking that “she was quite shy, strangely so for someone of her experience and position: and at the same time, direct.”

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The Queen’s 11th prime minister was Gordon Brown, an ambitious Scotsman who got along with the monarch but not to the extent that he was invited to Prince William’s wedding in 2011.

Similarly, while the Queen is said to have gotten along well with David Cameron, a distant relative of hers, he did create controversy when he was recorded leaking information about the Queen’s stance on Scottish independence. After Scotland voted to remain in the Union, Cameron was caught on television in conversation with New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He was heard saying, “The definition of relief is being the prime minister of the United Kingdom and ringing the Queen and saying ‘It’s all right, it’s okay.’ That was something. She purred down the line.” Given that the Queen does not comment on political matters, Cameron’s revelations created quite the stir.

Unlike with her first female prime minister, the Queen got along well with Theresa May, who said that the monarch greeted all her prime ministers with “charm and consideration, and with an impressive knowledge and understanding of the issues of the day.”

While Truss is officially the Queen’s last prime minister, the monarch passed before the two had a chance to form a relationship. Instead, the last prime minister to meet with the Queen weekly was Boris Johnson. Within minutes of meeting the Queen, Johnson proceeded to break protocol, revealing that the Queen told him, “I don’t know why anyone would want the job.” Johnson apologised for this misstep and was made to do so once again when he unlawfully asked her to suspend Parliament, and once more over parties held at Downing Street.

Which prime ministers did she like the most?

Reportedly, the Queen’s favourite prime minister was her first. The two had a mutual adoration for each other, with the politician Roy Jenkins once commenting that Churchill had “near idolatry” for the Queen. When Churchill retired in 1955, the Queen is said to have written a letter saying how much she would miss him.

Winston Churchill (Wikimedia Commons)

She wrote that no other prime minister would “ever for me be able to hold the place of my first prime minister, to whom both my husband and I owe so much and for whose wise guidance during the early years of my reign I shall always be so profoundly grateful.” Years later, when Churchill died, the Queen broke protocol by arriving at his funeral before his family.

Her former private secretary Tommy Lascelles wrote of their meetings – “I could not hear what they talked about, but it was, more often than not, punctuated by pearls of laughter, and Winston generally came out wiping his eyes.”

Wilson and Callaghan also famously got along well with the Queen. Audiences with Wilson regularly exceeded the 30-minute mark and would often last up to two hours. He is believed to have carried a picture of her in his wallet until he died.

Wilson also noted that the Queen tended to respect those who served in the armed forces, which explains her close relationship with Callaghan, a former Navy man.

Additionally, Major was said to have been a favourite of the Queen, and was tasked by her to take over the role of special guardian to Prince William and Harry after Princess Diana’s death.

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In the wake of her passing, it is all but certain that King Charles will take over her weekly audiences. Future prime ministers are likely hoping he can replicate the influence and restraint of his much-respected mother.

First published on: 10-09-2022 at 11:15:51 am
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